Tag Archives: 20th Century Fox

Bigger Than Life (1956, Nicholas Ray)

Despite producing the film himself, top-billed James Mason doesn’t have the best part in Bigger Than Life. Instead, Barbara Rush–as his suffering wife–gets it. Mason’s a man with a life threatening chronic illness who has to take special medication. Slowly–though not too slowly–that medication starts making him psychotic. Rush is the faithful wife who ignores advice and sticks by Mason’s side, even before she finds out it’s an increasingly known side effect of the medication. After she does make that discovery, it’s basically a rush to the finish with the danger being how far is Mason going to go.

And, actually, he doesn’t go anywhere near as far as one might assume. There’s a bit of restraint, because the movie never wants to make Mason too much the villain. He can be psychologically abusive to son Christopher Olsen, but it takes Olsen a really long time to break down and tell mom Rush how he hates Msaon now. And even after family friend Walter Matthau counsels Rush to call Mason’s doctor–little does she know Mason’s actively deceiving doctor (Robert F. Simon) and has been since his first night home from the hospital. The screenplay–credited to Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum, but with some uncredited help–gives Rush a range of fantastic scenes as she copes with Mason’s awful behavior, without ever really giving her a great role. She’s just dutiful wife. Of course she’s going to stand by her man, why wouldn’t she?

Though I suppose Mason’s lack of actual dangerous outbursts, just psychological torture of his family, do play a part. Though it’s not like Rush gets to react to them after the fact. She doesn’t get much in the way of character development. No one does. Not even Matthau, who’s third-billed but an overblown cameo by the second half. In the first act, he’s Mason’s best pal–Mason’s a school teacher, Matthau’s the gym teacher–and essential support to the family. Once Mason’s out of the hospital, the film forgets about him until they need an exposition dump. He’s the one who tells Rush about the drug’s side effects, as well as informs on Mason after Mason loses it at a school open house.

The scene where Mason faces repercussions for the behavior at the open house is entirely missing, as principal Rusty Lane–another pal of Mason’s early on–fades away. The more the story focuses in on just Mason, Rush, and Olsen the more unreasonable the plotting becomes. Director Ray is able to get some real tension in the third act, but it’s almost out of nowhere. The family goes to church, which sets Mason off in unexpected ways. Not at church, however, once they’re home, which makes Mason’s earlier public out burst a little nonsensical. His behavior’s predictable to some degree–he’s abusive at home–but only because home is the only place where the action takes place. Presumably he’s still going to work, but there are no further scenes there after a point, which makes the film more and more Rush’s, which is fine. She’s great. But the narrative’s lacking.

Bigger Than Life does only run ninety-five minutes, however, so there’s only so much it can do. Kipp Hamilton, as one of Mason and Matthau’s coworkers (who Rush suspects is having an affair with Mason at one point), completely disappears after Mason’s first day out of the hospital. She’s there long enough to stir up some masculine pride in his wife’s figure (Hamilton is a snazzier dresser than Rush) so Mason decides to bankrupt the family to get Rush a fancy dress. See, the erratic behavior starts right away, when theoretically Mason is taking his prescribed dose… his abuse gets worse as the film goes along, increasing as his mental problems increase, but there’s no direct narrative connection between the two threads. They’re parallel, understood to be causal, but unexplored.

Instead Mason just gets on this kick where he’s going to save the world from the stupid kids of modernity through a return to classical teaching. It’s not explored much more than that description. The script avoids a lot.

But until the third act, the movie basically holds it all together. It’s not until Rush has a last minute monologue explaining herself, which doesn’t actually explain any of her behavior on screen–the dialogue doesn’t jibe with her performance to this point–it seems like no one really knows how to end the movie. Then the movie sets a goal for how it can succeed and… doesn’t. What should be a great acting opportunity for Mason turns into some schmaltz. Not even enthusiastic schmaltz, much lses sincere.

There’s great photography from Joseph MacDonald, good direction from Ray–who has that wide Cinemascope frame but still manages to confine his actors in it, particularly in the tense home scenes, which are the film’s main type of scene–and some fine production values. Ray doesn’t have quite the handle on the school scenes, particularly not as far as tension goes, but they’re pretty sparse once things get going. One of the best sequences, Mason and Olsen playing football and Mason getting progressively more abusive, seems like it’s out of another film entirely, Ray’s style is so different and MacDonald shooting exteriors is such a visual shift.

The film acknowledges quite a bit about toxic masculinity, though nowhere near all the toxic masculinity it ends up visualizing–and Rush’s eventual capitulation to it–which makes things interesting. It’s another of the film’s little disappointments. The hasty finish keeps everyone aware from any self-examination.

Besides the great performances from Rush and Mason, Olsen’s good as the kid, Matthau’s likable in his part, Simon’s good as the doctor. If Ray gave the entire film as much subtlety as the doctors standing around silently regarding Mason, well, it’d be a much different picture. Though, given the way the script works, maybe not a better one. It’s just a bunch of different style choices in a relatively short amount of time. Even the finale is a style choice. Ray’s great at implementing those styles, just not at making them matter.

Bigger Than Life is pretty good, but cast and crew deserve more.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Nicholas Ray; screenplay by Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum, based on an article by Burton Roueche; director of photography, Joseph MacDonald; edited by Louis R. Loeffler; music by David Raksin; produced by James Mason; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring James Mason (Ed Avery), Barbara Rush (Lou Avery), Christopher Olsen (Richie Avery), Walter Matthau (Wally Gibbs), Robert F. Simon (Dr. Norton), Kipp Hamilton (Pat Wade), Roland Winters (Dr. Ruric), and Rusty Lane (Bob LaPorte).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE JAMES MASON BLOGATHON HOSTED BY MADDY OF MADDY LOVES HER CLASSIC FILMS.


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Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995, John McTiernan)

Until the tacked on finish, Die Hard with a Vengeance can do little wrong. It doesn’t aim particularly high, just high enough–it’s a symphony of action movie action (and violence) set in New York City; the city’s geography (at least movie familiar geography) plays less and less of a part as the runtime progresses, but director McTiernan and his crew are doing a large scale action movie over a wide setting and a constrained time period. The film takes place, without the tack on, in maybe nine hours. With the tack on, a few more.

Most of the city in crisis action happens in the first forty minutes or so. New York wakes up to a bombing in a department store. The unidentified terrorist (Jeremy Irons) calls the cops to demand Bruce Willis perform various tasks to prevent further bombings. On his first assignment, Willis involves local shopkeeper Sam Jackson. Irons likes the idea of Willis having a sidekick, so Jackson stays on. Larry Bryggman is Willis’s disapproving boss, Graham Greene, Colleen Camp, and Anthony Peck are his disapproving coworkers. Willis, separated from his wife since the last Die Hard, is failing about to be fired. Much of the first half of the movie is Willis complaining about his hangover; whoever’s job it was to make his eyes blood shot did great work.

Once they’re teamed up, Irons changes from tasks to riddles, giving Willis and Jackson this amount of time to get to this New York location and solve this riddle. Along the way, Willis and Jackson bicker. Despite it being Willis’s franchise, Jackson is there to be the audience’s anchor. For a while, McTiernan wants Vengeance to seem reasonable… plausible… not entirely unrealistic. Soon after Irons finally shows up on screen–with mostly silent flunkies Nick Wyman and Sam Phillips (the third tier East German guys make more of an impression–Vengeance doesn’t care about its supporting villains)–Willis finally catches on to what’s going on and starts shooting people. Only, even though there were a bunch of cops around, he and Jackson are on their own now. It’s just their action movie. Albeit one with a very wide setting.

The first stunning action sequence is when Willis has to jump on a subway train. Vengeance has been pretty up until this point. Lovely photography from Peter Menzies Jr.–the film takes the passage of the sun through the day rather seriously–fine editing from John Wright, excellent production design from Jackson De Govia. But it’s not until half an hour in and Willis pulling up a subway grate and jumping down does Vengeance show off its technical expertise. Once it does, however, the floodgates are open. The scale of the subsequent action varies, but McTiernan and his crew are always executing these grandiose, complication sequences with utter success. It’s a breathtaking ride. And a lot of fun, because Willis and Jackson are a fun pair. Sure, Jonathan Hensleigh’s attempts at solving racial prejudice through male action movie bonding is exceptionally naive and occasionally way too pat, but Willis and Jackson do manage to sell it. Their performances, even when the material’s thin–like the tack on finale–are outstanding.

Ditto Irons. Irons gets to relish though. Neither Willis or Jackson have relish-worthy material. Irons just gets to run wild. He’s the action movie villain in the “realistic” action movie. Only since he’s got all these henchmen doing the action villainry (for the most part), Menzies and McTiernan just have to make sure he never looks out of place and he’s fine.

McTiernan and editor Wright do well no matter what kind of action is going on. Willis surviving a flooded tunnel has just the right amount of tension, a bomb detonating in a middle school has just the right amount of tension. McTiernan toggles between the small scale Willis in a Die Hard movie getting out a situation with the very real terror involved in the school evacuation and so on. Though, in some ways, by keeping Willis (and Jackson) separate from that impending tragedy, Vengeance is able to cop out of having Willis in a “realistic” thriller. The real stuff is juxtaposed against his adventure with missing gold and fake accented Germans and whatever else.

Besides Willis, Jackson, and Irons, the rest of the cast is similarly superb. Bryggman especially. But also Greene and Camp, who slow burn throughout the film before getting their own big sequence. Peck’s good. Kevin Chamberlin’s fun as the bomb guy. Robert Sedgwick’s one of Irons’s thugs who makes more impression than Wyman or Phillips. Heck so does Joe Zaloom as the contrived action movie flunky Willis gets late in the film. Vengeance isn’t about the supporting villains.

Most of the Willis vs. thugs action is just bridging stuff between him and Jackson moving on to their next set piece, which is fine. It distinguishes Vengeance, especially since McTiernan and his crew excel more during the set pieces. The execution of Vengeance is just as important as the content executed, which is another reason the finale is such a disappointment. It’s an exterior night sequence, which–given any thought–fails all credibility tests (even for Die Hard with a Vengeance, though especially given the work put into the film’s procedural constraints). It’s a shame the finish doesn’t live up to the rest of the film, both in terms of narrative (it’s thoughtless) and execution (the big foil is a spotlight distracting Willis).

Not a worthy finish to the previous, sublime two hours.

But Vengeance is still a success. It can’t not be, not with the heights McTiernan and Wright reach; you can’t fault an action movie too much for having a perfunctory action movie finish. To be fair, the first ending–before the tack on–is phenomenal even in its absurd grandiosity.

Good score from Michael Kamen. Great production values. Excellent performances.

In five-dollar words, Die Hard with a Vengeance is so elegantly executed, it transcends the very tropes it functions on (as well as the script’s faults). Just not through the very end.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by John McTiernan; screenplay by Jonathan Hensleigh, based on characters created by Roderick Thorp; director of photography, Peter Menzies Jr.; edited by John Wright; music by Michael Kamen; production designer, Jackson De Govia; produced by McTiernan and Michael Tadross; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Bruce Willis (John McClane), Samuel L. Jackson (Zeus Carver), Jeremy Irons (Simon Gruber), Larry Bryggman (Insp. Walter Cobb), Graham Greene (Joe Lambert), Colleen Camp (Connie Kowalski), Anthony Peck (Ricky Walsh), Nick Wyman (Mathias Targo), Sam Phillips (Katya), Kevin Chamberlin (Charles Weiss), and Joe Zaloom (Jerry Parks).


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The Lodger (1944, John Brahm)

The Lodger begins four murders into the Jack the Ripper killings (the film actually goes over the historical number but also makes some rather liberal changes to the history). Just after a murder occurs, which seems a rather unfortunate event since the victim passes a number of police officers and even a vigilante gang, a gentleman inquires about some lodgings nearby. Said gentleman is Laird Cregar, a pathologist; the lodgings are in Sara Allgood and Cedric Hardwicke’s house. Her sister has passed. Not only is there a sitting room and bedroom for Cregar, there’s also an attic with a kitchen. He’s very interested in the attic. Allgood and Hardwicke have fallen on somewhat hard times–he made a mistake and lost his position, they need lodging income. Cregar overpays. Perfect arrangement.

Hardwicke’s not particularly happy to have a tenant, but Cregar promises he’ll be a model tenant. Though he does go into conniptions about there being portraits of stage actresses on his sitting room wall. And he doesn’t seem thrilled at the prospect of sharing a roof with one–Allgood’s niece, Merle Oberon, is a music hall singer and dancer of growing renown. But all seems well.

Other than Cregar being exceptionally suspicious. Down to giving what seems like has to be a fake name.

As the murders continue, Allgood becomes more and more suspicious of Cregar’s odd behaviors. Hardwicke’s usually the one to dissuade her. And after his initial apprehension, Cregar is able to at least appear kindly towards Oberon, maybe just a little nervous. Cregar’s a big guy, but appears meek most of the time he’s opposite Oberon or the rest of the family.

While Oberon’s new show is opening, a former actress (Helena Pickard) is murdered. She’d just been visiting with Oberon, which leads Scotland Yard to the theater to ask some questions. George Sanders is the inspector. Oberon is what keeps Sanders coming back asking questions. All the victims, he reveals, have been former actresses. Seems Lodger’s Ripper has a definite type.

Soon Allgood’s suspicions finally lead to Oberon and Hardwicke getting more interested, but their initial investigations into Cregar don’t reveal anything suspicious. He’s just a giant, socially awkward, meek pathologist. Even if he did burn his bag at the mention of the Ripper having a bag. And will soon be burning a bloody coat with a flimsy excuse. Oberon’s busy with Sanders’s charming courtship, which starts at Scotland Yard’s murder museum.

When the film gets into the third act and Allgood and Hardwicke finally confide in Sanders–but not Oberon, who’s obviously in great danger but preparing for a bigger opening–everything starts coming together, despite a last minute (and unresolved) foil in the evidence against Cregar. The Lodger doesn’t even run ninety minutes, has two musical numbers, two murder sequences, and it’s still got some occasional padding. What’s unfortunate is how, despite Allgood and Hardwicke being present throughout, it feels like they disappear a bit too much in the second act when Cregar gets comfortable enough to talk to Oberon. And Sanders vanishes altogether for a bit; his subsequent courtship of Oberon, despite showing so much promise, is offscreen and unmentioned. Cregar’s the star, to be sure. Sanders’s second billing is inflated. Arguably so’s Oberon’s top billing but, well, she’s got the two musical numbers and is the unwitting object of Cregar’s obsession.

All the acting is great, particularly Cregar and Hardwicke. Allgood would be better if she had more to do as the film progresses. She’s still great, but the part shrinks. Oberon and Sanders are both good. But they don’t have anything near the “wow” moments Cregar gets. At the start of the film, Lucien Ballard casts a light on Cregar’s eyes to make him appear creepier than he already appears. It doesn’t last for long, just focuses the audience’s attention on Cregar’s odd behavior. Once the light stops, Cregar just gets better. It’s like director Brahm figures out how to showcase his disturbed behavior better, without literal lighted emphasis on him, instead on how to frame Cregar in shots. And Ballard’s there to make sure the shots are phenomenal.

Nice supporting turns from Pickard and Queenie Leonard (as the maid).

Outstanding score from Hugo Friedhofer. Friedhofer, the sets, Ballard’s photography, Brahm’s direction, and Cregar’s intensity make The Lodger something special. Ballard’s lighting success isn’t just on Cregar or in Brahm’s expressive shots, it’s in the functionality of the gaslight era. He’s constantly changing light in shots as a character will turn off the gas, light a candle, and so on. Or move throughout the house in the same shot. The house itself is never creepy, just dark (which might explain why no one is ever too weirded out by Cregar while they’re at home). There’s also all the exterior stuff–the foggy London streets and alleyways; they’re all beautifully done, but in detail and Brahm’s direction of the action on them.

Barré Lyndon’s script is a tad slight on the investigation stuff, slighter still on the romance between Oberon and Sanders (Sanders being a distinct character is superfluous by the third act, as he doesn’t interact with Oberon with any specificity), and then the postscript. After a fantastic chase finale, The Lodger’s got no resolution.

Still, it’s a rather effective thriller. Exquisitely produced and acted, especially by Cregar, who manages to not so much to humanize a monster but reveal human monstrosity.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by John Brahm; screenplay by Barré Lyndon, based on the novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes; director of photography, Lucien Ballard; edited by J. Watson Webb Jr.; music by Hugo Friedhofer; produced by Robert Bassler; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Laird Cregar (Slade), Merle Oberon (Kitty Langley), Sara Allgood (Ellen Bonting), Cedric Hardwicke (Robert Bonting), George Sanders (Inspector John Warwick), Queenie Leonard (Daisy), Doris Lloyd (Jennie), David Clyde (Bates), and Helena Pickard (Annie Rowley).


THIS POST IS PART OF BLOGATHON JACK THE RIPPER HOSTED BY ALESSANDRO OF REDJACK.


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My Cousin Rachel (1952, Henry Koster)

Olivia de Havilland is top-billed on My Cousin Rachel, but Richard Burton’s the star. For better or worse. Burton’s a young English gentleman, de Havilland is his cousin. And his cousin–and guardian’s–widow. She doesn’t appear for the first twenty-five minutes of the film, which instead have Burton becoming more and more concerned for his missing relative, who’s met de Havilland in Italy and impetuously married her.

The cousin calls for Burton because he suspects de Havilland (well, we don’t technically know it’s de Havilland yet because she isn’t in the movie yet) of poisoning him or somehow doing evil to him.

Burton’s trip to Italy culminates the film’s problems with rear screen projection. There’s some bad rear screen projection later, but pretty soon the movie is just set on the estate. The first act is rife with problems though. Joseph LaShelle’s photography never matches, contrast-wise, and director Koster shoots Burton super broody in front of those shots. Burton gets a lot better once de Havilland shows up, but at the beginning, he’s moody for no discernible reason. Other than him–at twenty-four–not being grown-up enough to be home alone (without the cousin who’s going to marry de Havilland… off-screen).

It causes a big disconnect as later on Burton’s often pouting about no one thinking he can put on his big boy pants by himself.

The Italy sequence is mostly indoors, with a couple too brief establishing shots. They don’t have problematic rear screen projection, they have problematic matte paintings. Again, it’s more the photography not matching than anything else causing the problems.

Once Burton gets back–after making a vow over his cousin’s grave to get to the bottom of his death–de Havilland shows up. She’s broke. Burton got all the money. He suspects her of being after it. Only it turns out she’s so sweet and sexy (even if she is thirty-five), Burton can’t resist her.

And then My Cousin Rachel turns into this wonderfully uncomfortable “romance” between de Havilland and Burton. Is she leading him on, how much is she leading him on, is she saint or villain. With a handful of exceptions, all of de Havilland’s scenes are opposite Burton. She gets few to herself, usually meant to raise or assuage the audience’s suspicions, but otherwise every moment is confusion. There’s Burton’s reliability, which gets more and more suspect as he gets more and more enraptured with her, but there’s also de Havilland’s actions and her timing of them. She’s definitely manipulating Burton; is it accidental or intentional. de Havilland has to raise those suspicions in scene and in subtext. There are no showdowns, no big revelations from her. She’s always a mystery. Only de Havilland doesn’t play it like she’s an intentional mystery.

The supporting cast oscillates between reinforcing suspicions and alleviating them. Burton’s guardian, Ronald Squire, is sometimes sure de Havilland’s good, sometimes sure she’s bad. Audrey Dalton, as Squire’s daughter and Burton’s initially presumed love interest, actually has the hardest part in the film because she’s got to get clued in to Burton’s obsession without ever seeing de Havilland encourage it. Given how things shake out in the end–and how badly the Italy interlude goes–Dalton probably should’ve been the protagonist (but not lead). She’s pretty much the only sympathetic character in the whole picture.

Then there’s George Dolenz as de Havilland’s Italian admirer and confidant. He’s another creep who might or might not be a creep. But since Burton gets to be quite the creep himself….

After a somewhat unsteady opening, the film gets quite good for the second and third acts. Burton’s a little too flat in his brooding, but de Havilland plays off it perfectly (apparently they couldn’t stand each other, which just seems to make their lop-sided chemistry all the better). And there’s even some great rear screen projection, albeit not of landscapes but for dream sequences.

The finale, however, is way too abrupt. The film forgets its been calling Burton’s reliability into question and only wants to concentrate on de Havilland’s. In the third act, even in good scenes, it’s hard not to notice there are only two female roles in Rachel–de Havilland’s succubus and Dalton’s saint. Even de Havilland and Dalton bring more to the parts, Johnson’s script doesn’t reward their contributions.

Franz Waxman’s score is all important. It’s dramatic, emotive, scary, lush, tragic, romantic. All the adjectives. The music is what gets the movie through some of the bad rear screen projection photography too. It implies a lot more going on in Burton’s head than Burton’s expressions or the narration do.

Koster’s direction is okay. It’s a little bland and it does nothing to get around the Code constraints, but some of those problems are Johnson’s fault, both as screenwriter and producer. Otherwise, Johnson’s script is excellent.

The movie just cops out with Burton, who’s the lead, even if he’s not top-billed. It’s constructed to cop out on de Havilland, but not on Burton, which is a shame. The film overcomes that first act and gets quite good thanks to de Havilland only to choke at its conclusion. Burton’s too flat on his own, sure, but it’s also on Johnson and Koster.

It’s a shame.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Henry Koster; screenplay by Nunnally Johnson, based on the novel by Daphne Du Maurier; director of photography, Joseph LaShelle; edited by Louis R. Loeffler; music by Franz Waxman; produced by Johnson; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Olivia de Havilland (Rachel), Richard Burton (Philip), Audrey Dalton (Louise), Ronald Squire (Kendall), George Dolenz (Rainaldi), Tudor Owen (Seecombe), and John Sutton (Ambrose).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE THIRD ANNUAL OLIVIA DE HAVILLAND BLOGATHON HOSTED BY PHYLLIS OF PHYLLIS LOVES CLASSIC MOVIES AND CRYSTAL OF IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD.


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